“Will your grandchildren be Jewish?” Rabbi Shraga Sherman of Chabad of the Mainline in suburban Philadelphia believes he has an answer to that question, so troubling to many of today’s Jewish parents. “If we can build and enhance a vibrant Jewish spirit in today’s kids,” he says, “we are assured of a future that includes strong, committed Jewish grandchildren.”
That, essentially, is the inspiration behind Chabad of the Mainline’s unusual center. Dubbed “the Mitzvah Factory,” this Chabad center serves as something of a Jewish fun house for Jewish kids and their parents in the suburban Philadelphia Bala-Cynwyd area. “The idea is to give kids hands-on, exciting opportunities to experience Jewish life and tradition,” says Rabbi Gedalya Lowenstien, who joined Rabbi Sherman earlier this year to assist in the day-to-day running of the center. “This place was designed for repeat visits, where kids come again and again to enjoy Jewishly oriented fun in a way that helps imbue them with a strong attachment to tradition that will eventually become a part of their lives.”
A constant hub of activity, the Mitzvah Factory offers children stimulating Jewishly themed arts and crafts, storybooks and games, scheduled programs such as weekly challah baking, Mommy–and-me activities, pajama parties and Jewish story time, and seasonal holiday programs including shofar making, an olive press, matzah baking, among other interactive shows and exhibits. A popular venue for birthday parties, the center is also set up for drop in visits throughout the day, and scheduled tours and events crowd the calendar.
In the evenings and weekends, the facility doubles as a standard Chabad center, with Shabbat services and a variety of adult education programming. A Chabad Hebrew school meets there twice a week as well.
Now in its third year, the Mitzvah factory is showing tremendous results in Bala Cynwyd and beyond, attracting Jewish families from neighboring areas as well.
“Focusing on children has a way of bringing the entire community together,” says Rabbi Sherman. “Visitors to the center literally run the gamut of observance and affiliation, and they come because of a shared concern for their children’s Jewish future that cuts across all groupings.”
Scott Schley, a regular visitor to the Mitzvah Factory with his wife Michelle and their four children, points to the center’s impact on his family. “This is a place where my kids see living Judaism and Jewish role models in a way that relates to their world,” he says. “Our involvement with Chabad and the Mitzvah factory has brought about significant changes in the way they relate to Judaism, and in their identity as Jews.”
Scott credits the Shermans, Lowenstiens, and the rest of the Chabad staff for those changes. Harry, 14, a student in a Philadelphia prep school, recently made the decision to go kosher in and out of the home, which means bringing food from home instead of using the school’s convenient cafeteria. “Harry has the strength to do this from hanging with the Chabad Rabbis and seeing Judaism as a complete way of life,” says his father. “The Mitzvah Factory provides a vibrant example of living Judaism for our kids, and I hope many of them will follow it.”